The William & Mary defense dropped its guard for the football equivalent of a second Friday night, long enough for home-standing Villanova to knock the Tribe from the NCAA playoffs.
Villanova's offensive stars, quarterback Chris Whitney and receiver Matt Szczur, each scored touchdowns to lead the Wildcats to a gut-wrenching 14-13 come-from-behind victory over trhe sixth-ranked Tribe. The loss left the Tribe with a final record of 11-3, equaling the school record for most victories in a season, and saw them fall one game shy of advancing to the national championship for the second time in five years.
Villanova, the regular-season Colonial Athletic Association champion, defeated W&M for the second time this season, both times on their home field. The Wildcats, 13-1, will meet the winner of the Montana-Appalachian State game for the national championship on December 18 in Chattanoga, Tenn.
"It's very disappointing to get to the final four and not make the championship game," Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said. "It will hurt for awhile then we'll look back and see that this was a real special season. We really made a name for Tribe football, got some national publicity and made some new fans."
The Tribe grabbed a 10-0 halftime lead in bone-chilling temperatures in suburban Philadelphia, and appeared to be in perfect position to pull an upset against their CAA foes.
Pinned inside their 5-yard line for the third time in the half, W&M turned the worst field position imaginable into a play that will live forever in Tribe history.
On third-and-8, redshirt junior receiver Cameron Dohse ran a simple stop-and-go against Eric Loper, getting a hair's separation from the freshman cornerback. Quarterback R.J. Archer lobbed a pinpoint pass over Loper and onto Dohse's fingertips at the 34-yard line. Loper fell as Dohse pulled away for a 98-yard touchdown play - the longest in W&M history.
"That first half, we overcame just terrible field position," Laycock said. "We turned it into some big plays."
Later in the half, the Tribe defense stymied the Wildcats following their interception of a tipped pass thrown by Archer. Starting at its own 16, W&M ran off the final 12 plays of the half, converted a trio of third-down opportunities, and advanced to the Villanova 28 with two seconds remaining.
From there, graduate student Brian Pate boomed a 45-yard field goal, his longest of the season.
William & Mary outgained Villanova, 257-70, in the first half, held them to two first downs, and limited Whitney to just two completions in 10 attempts.
In addition to Dohse, who finished the game with five catches for 148 yards, receiver David MacAuley also excelled for the Tribe with 7 catches for 49 yards in the first half.
Villanova began its comeback in the third quarter when Szczur, the CAA offensive player of the year, fielded a direct snap from center, broke through a huge hole behind left guard and ran, untouched, 62 yards for a touchdown.
The Tribe countered with a 15-play drive to Pate's second field goal of the game, a 40-yarder with 2:13 left in the third quarter to extend the lead to 13-7.
The Wildcats then mounted another drive, keyed by Szczur's 8-yard run on a fake punt that gained just enough yards for Villanova to keep the ball.
"That was the key play right there," Laycock said. "That allowed them to keep the drive alive which led to a score. Give them credit: they made the play and we didn't."
Later on the same series, the instant replay judge over-ruled the official's call on the field that a 16-yard pass from Whitney to Brandyn Harvey was incomplete.
That gave Villanova a first down at the W&M 6. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Whitney faked a quarterback sneak into the center of the line then broke around right end in to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 10:57 remaining in the game.
W&M had two more possessions, but could not make a first down, and Villanova ran out the game's final 5:41.
"After that drive with the fake punt, we just couldn't get enough offensive plays," Laycock said. "I feel for the guys, but we gave it our best. We played hard. We tried hard."